Wednesday, March 01, 2006

16 Blocks

Title: 16 Blocks (2006)
Dir: Richard Donner
Tagline: For a New York cop and his witness, the distance between life and death just got very short.
Rating: *** out of 5 stars

For the Diamondback....

Imagine you are driving through a severe hurricane, and at a bus stop you see three people: a dying old lady, your best friend, and the love of your life. You only have room in your car for one person. Who do you pick up?

In 16 Blocks, Eddie Bunker (rapper Mos Def) proposes that riddle to Detective Jack Mosley (a very aged Bruce Willis). The depressed, middle-aged Mosley is assigned to transport Bunker to a downtown courthouse, where he will testify against an officer of the NYPD. Like in the riddle, Mosley faces a moral dilemma when he learns that his fellow cops want to kill Bunker before he can testify against their colleague. Should he protect his trusted friends, or help a strange in need?

Mosley, with his bad leg and penchant for booze, is a joke at the police station. So when his longtime partner Frank (David Morse, The Green Mile) asks him to turn a blind eye to the murder scheme, old Jack proves that he is still worth a damn by helping Bunker escape his would-be assassins. Mosley has an hour and a half to move Bunker sixteen blocks to the courthouse without being found by the crooked cops.

Director Richard Donner is no stranger to action films, having helmed the entire Lethal Weapon series. Although not nearly as witty, 16 Blocks still boasts a fair amount of action, and holds its own in the tried-but-true “last good cop” genre.

The role of Mosley is reminiscent of Willis’ performance in Sin City as the aging Detective Hartigan who desperately tried to prove his worth by saving a young girl. Unlike Hartigan, Mosley is not trying to be a hero, but once he commits to protecting Bunker, he is desperate to prove that he is capable of saving him.

Willis lacks the tough guy charm from his glory days (see Die Hard), but the transformation is intentional. Mosley is no action hero – he’s just a tired lush with a shady past. Unlike watching Harrison Ford hobble across screen pretending to be tough (e.g., Firewall), we see Willis as a man who is flawed but believably capable of heroism. With roles like this, Bruce continues to prove he can act as well as he can fire a gun.

As the witness-under-fire, Mos Def is likable with one distinct flaw: his voice. He puts on an accent to sound uneducated, which is appropriate for a character targeted by a police cover-up, but the actor comes across sounding like Handi-Man from In Living Color. Once you can overlook the voice, Mos Def is good and provides what little comic relief the film has.

The movie occasionally falters in character development. For instance, the script fails to establish Mosley’s twenty-year relationship with Frank before exposing him as a villain. And yet later, the movie beats us over the head with how close the two cops supposedly were. This lapse in character development makes Frank’s exposure as bad guy seem less shocking and makes Mosley’s decision to defy his friend seem less difficult. This is a minor but obvious flaw in an otherwise good film.

Overall, 16 Blocks is an exciting action movie, with a surprisingly cute (yes, cute) ending. It cannot always escape cliché territory (can any action movie?) but it is an enjoyable popcorn flick with an above-average amount of heart.